Women’s rights are key in slowing down population

By Sivananthi Thanenthiran
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 25 2019 (IPS) – The increase in world population by 2 billion in the next 30 years will present a serious global challenge especially if we do not find new paradigms of development thought and renewed global political leadership.
Our region, the Asia and the Pacific region is already home to 60 per cent of the world’s population – some 4.3 billion people, with India and China being the most populous countries.
A further increase in population means it will be harder to achieve the 17 SDGs with the 169 different targets – aimed at fighting poverty, reducing inequality, addressing climate change, ensuring quality primary and secondary education for all children, gender equality, and reduced child mortality – to ensure nobody is left behind.
Marginalised populations already suffer deprivations: poor women, women in living in rural and hard-to-reach areas are those who are unable to access to contraceptive services even when they desire to have a smaller family size. This unmet need amongst those left behind needs to be addressed, if we are looking at ensuring that these groups do not get left behind.
We are currently facing heightened conflicts over resources, accelerated effects of climate change, political strife and economic collapse in a world marked by inequalities.
These trends cannot be contained within borders and will spill over and the global community must be aware – that this will raise poverty levels, and give rise to displaced persons, refugees and migrants.
Besides these already well documented impacts, the most affected will be women and girls. In most developing countries, women and girls are already marginalised, and will be further pushed into poverty.
In areas we have conducted research in, we can see that climate change has effects on food security – forcing women and girls into hunger and malnutrition; there is increased incidence of lesser education opportunities and increase child marriages.
This essentially impacts a whole gamut of women’s rights, particularly their sexual and reproductive health and rights. This is why we track and monitor governments’ implementation of the landmark International Conference on Population and Development’s Programme of Action (ICPD POA) that took place in Cairo in 1994.
Signed by 179 countries across the world in 1994, the PoA put human rights as the corner stone to address population and development issues, and called for a comprehensive approach to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, especially for women and girls.
Governments agreed that reproductive rights, gender equality, equity and women’s empowerment are essential for improving quality of life and achieving sustained social and economic growth and sustainable development.
At the juncture of the 25th anniversary of the ICPD, it is essential for us to look at holistic, rights-based global frameworks to help us get a grip on the challenges we are facing today.
The prediction that the world population will increase by 2 billion in the next 30 years is based on ground realities like high incidence of child marriage and fertility rates. When girls are married younger, they drop out of school and often also get pregnant earlier.
They have little or no access to comprehensive sexuality education which impacts their knowledge of contraception, access and knowledge of abortion services and leads to unwanted pregnancies. Those who are already marginalised, will suffer further deprivations.
Governments in the region should have the political courage to ensure eradication of child marriages, ensure provision of comprehensive sexuality education, and access to sexual and reproductive health services to young people regardless of marital status.
UN data shows that population in the group of 47 least developed countries (LDCs), which includes countries in Asia, is growing 2.5 times faster than the total population of the rest of the world, and is expected to jump from 1 billion inhabitants in 2019 to 1.9 billion in 2050.
It is also predicted that half of the world’s population growth will be concentrated in just nine countries: India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, the United Republic of Tanzania, the United States of America, Uganda and Indonesia.
However, women’s rights are key in slowing down population. It is no coincidence that in many of the above countries in our region as well as others, the status of women and girls is low. It is a fact that sexual and reproductive rights are integral to individual autonomy, to freely decide on matters of sexuality and reproduction, to have the right to consent and bodily integrity. Women need to have control over their bodies and should be able to decide whether or not to have children, when to have children, how many children to have.
In 2016, a study from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and the Asian Demographic Research Institute (ADRI) at Shanghai University showed that if the world could achieve the 17 SDGs by 2030, it could slow down global population growth to 8.2 to 8.7 billion by 2100.
The Goals 3 and 5 – of good health and well-being and gender equality – help build an enabling environment for the achievement of all other goals. Which is why it is so critical for us to ensure our governments implement the ICPD PoA.
Empowering women is the key to slowing down population. However, population growth cannot be achieved through coercive measures like sterilisation, family planning methods that limit women’s reproductive choices.
Instead, we need to ensure comprehensive sexuality education for in and out-of-school children and youth, eliminate child, early and forced marriage, tackle teenage pregnancies, invest in health care programmes and policies, ensure universal health coverage for all, including the most vulnerable and marginalised, a rights-based approach to family planning where women have access to contraceptive and family planning services of their choice.
Besides these, we need to simultaneously ensure access to safe abortion services to all women and girls and remove all barriers to access abortion so there are no unintended, unplanned or forced pregnancies.
There is also a pressing need to increase investments in girls’ education & address barriers that prevent girls from attending schools. Similarly, we need to increase women’s participation in the labour force, which means addressing gender inequalities inside homes and making work environments safer.
When we shift the focus to people’s development, and enable marginalised women and girls to have choices and exercise decision-making over their life choices, we create the necessary change for the world’s population.
Sivananthi Thanenthiran is also a SheDecides Champion for Asia Pacific. ARROW has consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (UN ECOSOC) of the United Nations and works closely with many national partners in countries, regional and global networks around the world, and are able to reach stakeholders in 120 countries.
(Sivananthi Thanenthiran is the executive director of the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW), a regional feminist NGO based in Malaysia championing sexual and reproductive health and rights in Asia Pacific.)